Acts of Resistance in China

Issue Date July 2010
Volume 21
Issue 3
Page Numbers 173-176
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China’s Long March to Freedom: Grassroots Modernization. By Kate Zhou. Transaction Publishers, 2009. 349 pp.

Organized, visible, and overtly political challenges to authoritarian regimes have long been staple material for students of democratization. Students of South Korean democratization, for instance, focus on the minjung movement, while students of South African democratization study the political and military resistance of the African National Congress. But what happens when an authoritarian regime resolutely crushes any organized challenges to its rule? Is the only hope for democracy in such a country some combination of internal regime conflicts or international pressures?

Kate Zhou, a native of China who teaches politics at the University of Hawaii, asks this question with respect to authoritarian China and arrives at a novel conclusion: The everyday actions of more than a billion citizens whose energies have been unleashed by a post-Stalinist transformation of the economy and society there may be just as powerful a source of regime change. In their manifold attempts to carve out greater personal and group freedoms, Zhou argues, China’s citizens have decisively shaped the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, limited its power, and ultimately changed its basic nature. Since there is no turning back, China is likely on its way to a more liberal and possibly even democratic outcome through this process of “grassroots modernization.” “This social revolution is moving China towards a more liberal society, even while the government continues its illiberal and grasping mode of control” (xxii). In this account, it is Chinese society which acts, and China’s rulers who react. [End Page 173]

About the Author

Bruce Gilley is professor of political science at Portland State University. His works include The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy (2009) and The Nature of Asian Politics (2014).

View all work by Bruce Gilley

Zhou’s overarching thesis is an extension of her earlier work on rural China, which showed how individual peasants’ resistance to collective agriculture ushered in rural reforms. Here she considers entrepreneurs, migrants, journalists, homosexuals, and many other groups of freedom-seekers. The changes that she documents are profound and not widely appreciated. Somewhere between 150 million and 250 million internal migrants have broken down barriers to free movement and, precisely by remaining beyond official control, have revived many of China’s great traditions of street culture and self-help organizations. Private entrepreneurs, most of them incubated within the state-owned sector, have turned finance and commercial regulation upside down, and in the process have created China’s industrial boom. The CCP has found itself forced to perform ideological acrobatics to justify this sweeping privatization of the economy. Journalists, meanwhile, have deftly exploited the contradictions of information-control policies and the rising commercialization of the press in order to expand the limits of expression. China’s bloggers and hackers are actively working to tear down the walls of censorship and redefine the public agenda. China’s young and media savvy are more than just Václav Havel’s community of people who refuse to believe regime lies; today, they actively refute them.

These millions of actions, as described by Zhou, are a “movement” only in a metaphorical sense. For as she defines them, they are “spontaneous, unorganized, leaderless, non-ideological, and apolitical.” These actions, however, should not necessarily be viewed as “everyday forms of resistance,” and do not represent strategic alternatives to organized opposition to the regime. Rather the consequences that they impose upon the CCP regime are largely unintentional. While the grain-stealing paddy farmers of Malaya or the punk rockers of the late Soviet Union were making symbolic protests against their regimes, China’s grassroots modernizers are too busy carving out personal freedoms to even care about the regime. They could not give a fig if it stands or falls—a common attitude captured in China by oft-heard phrases such as “I don’t care about politics” or “politics doesn’t matter anymore.”

As Zhou shows, the CCP is today managing to stay in power only by staying afloat on an ever-shifting sea of individual freedoms. In the past, the sea did not shift, or it was simply drained. This is worth knowing. We need to understand the social context in which the CCP has been able to remain in power by changing its policies, institutions, and ideology.

Zhou is not the first to highlight the political implications of the social transformation unleashed by the reform period in China. Indeed, the view that the CCP’s days are numbered has been a core claim of modernization theorists who study China. Others have dismissed this view as a fantasy, and a Western fantasy at that. Zhou’s book is important not only because she documents the very real ways in which this process is working, but also because she represents a significant body of opinion among Chinese [End Page 174] intellectuals who wish to see their country achieve what dissident Wei Jingsheng famously called the “fifth modernization” (democracy) complementing the “four modernizations” urged on China by the communist regime. Reminding ourselves of the great liberal tradition in China dating back at least to the late nineteenth century helps us to understand that the current Chinese debate on democracy is primarily a domestic one.

While Zhou believes that a liberal or even democratic outcome is the most likely result, she acknowledges uncertainty. For as she notes, atomized, self-seeking individual actions may do little more than set some awkward limits on state power without transforming it, and may even, in some unexpected ways, build it up again. These personal freedoms have been purchased at a price. Such actions “may not lead China towards democracy and rule of law” (xxxiv), she notes, because by their nature they have involved society in compromises with the state that may rob society of an ability to push for democracy. Rule-breaking, corruption, clientelism, and hypernationalism are all by-products of the strange interaction between state and society that the reform era has produced. So too is the regime’s embrace of globalization to strengthen its own hand—whether by importing information-control technology or by strengthening the regime’s financial position.

The irony is that the very nature of China’s grassroots modernization may have robbed society of the moral and ideological authority that is necessary for a democratic transition. The CCP can embrace this stunted social contract and then use its obverse consequences to capture the moral high ground. The regime has addicted its people to the very sorts of individual freedom-seeking that Zhou so ably documents, and then has used the resulting social ethos of rule-breaking, amorality, and general irresponsibility as the basis for its own right or need to rule. The idea of a “harmonious society” that China’s leaders have recently espoused is a direct response to Zhou’s grassroots modernizers, and it shows the Party’s ability to put itself at the irreplaceable center of political life. As she acknowledges: It must also be kept in mind that the grassroots liberal movement has its own limitations as well. It has been effective in transforming the old system but has not been able to generate real institutional change. The lack of support at the elite level means that China has become two societies: one composed and driven by grassroots liberal movements from below and another driven by the formal illiberal tendencies of the Chinese Communist state (120).

In other words, Zhou may be right that China’s grassroots modernizers have changed China profoundly and changed the regime too. But whether that is sufficient to lead to a democratic or even liberal outcome must remain an open question.

The chapter on sexuality is worth reading closely, not only because it is titillating, but also because it best illustrates these big questions. It argues that the sexual revolution in China has challenged the regime, [End Page 175] which is the guardian of traditional Chinese conservatism on sexual mores. It is true that the CCP has been forced to abandon its official prudishness with regard to sexuality. But the implications of this for the regime are far from clear. Another possible interpretation, given by other scholars, is that the CCP has basked in the glory of this sexual revolution. After all, Chinese tradition is not at all prudish about sex. A classic of Chinese literature, at least in the minds of most Chinese, is Jin Ping Mei, which is straightforward pornography. Confucianism worried much more about cultivating personal virtue than about combating fleshly sin. China’s sexual revolution, in this view, is not antitraditional, but a return to Chinese traditions, including the keeping of mistresses and the normalization of prostitution (as is seen in “traditional” Taiwan). The CCP long fought against these traditions in the name of Marxism, a product of Western culture which, as Lynn White notes in his foreword to this book, contains “Levitican injunctions” that put sexual faithfulness and sublimation, not learning and ritual, at the core of personal virtue (xi). The return to traditional Chinese sexual mores need not be delegitimizing for the CCP regime.

Put more broadly, the CCP’s response to its loss of social control has in many ways strengthened its hand by reaffirming its symbolic role in saving the country from sexual license, peasant migration, moral decay, crass entrepreneurs, and insidious “Westernization” (a code word in all developing societies for the passing of traditional ways).

It is reasonable to argue that modernization theory will prove correct in China’s case. Zhou’s book highlights the unintended consequences for an authoritarian regime with a totalizing ideology of the actions of more than a billion individual freedom-seekers. But we must keep an open mind, as Zhou does, about the uncertain results of this transformation. After all, it may turn out that China’s “grassroots modernizers,” in their quest of self-satisfactions, will only prolong the life of the CCP regime. [End Page 176]